Monday, September 29, 2008

The Geography of Bliss

Last night I finished "The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner. I happened upon this book while browsing the Travel Memoir section of Barnes & Noble. That area has been a bit of a goldmine for me. I love traveling and love reading about others' experiences while traveling so am usually successful in finding something that sounds interesting. This book is a little different than the usual travel memoir. Most of the memoires I read share a central theme of self-discovery or finding love or something melodramatic like that. In this one, the author is trying to figure out what makes people happy and whether geography has any bearing on this. So he travels to 10 different places - places known for being happy such as Switzerland (that surprised me, great country but when I think of happy people, the Swiss don't pop into my mind...) and Bhutan or places that are known for being unhappy, like Moldova, a country I was not familiar with until reading this book (close to the Ukraine, used to be under Russia's control).

Weiner chose the countries he visited based on a 'happiness index' created by a research department of a university in Amsterdam. They tried to scientifically assign a happiness index to each country, which seems pretty difficult. Anyways, Weiner decided to visit countries with the highest and lowest indexes values. Won't go into detail about all of the countries, but here are a couple of countries that were interesting to me:

Bhutan: I studied Bhutan when I was taking some courses in the International Education department at the University of MN, so was familiar with their national policies. Instead of focusing on GNP or GDP, Bhutan's leaders instead focus on "GNH - Gross National Happiness". When making decisions, they evaluate whether the decision will make the Nation more or less happy. It's all a bit touchy feely for me - nice idea in principle but seems pretty inapplicable when you have a diverse population. It's hard to make decisions that make everyone happy - someone always seems to get the short end of the stick. But it works for Bhutan. The people of this nation are pretty poor in general but seem to be rather content/happy with what they have... (which seems to be a trend for countries that have less than Americans?? Feel free to disagree...)

While we are on the subject of what America has compared to other countries, it's a good time to look at how that has benefited society. We have lots of luxuries and most of us have life pretty good. There is definitely a sector of our population for which life is a struggle, but in general, we're doing pretty good. However, Weiner cites a study by a psychologist that compares the state of society today to the state we experienced in the 1960s; since then, the divorce rate has doubled, the teen-suicide rate tripled, the violet-crime rate quadrupled, and the prison population quintupled. Hmmm... so obviously being more well-off financially hasn't bettered life for our country...

Iceland: It surprised me that Iceland ranked high on the Happiness scale. Not that there is anything wrong with that country, but again, similar to Switzerland, it doesn't really strike me as the Mecca of happiness. Plus, they spend a good chunk of the year in complete darkness, 24/7. (Interestingly enough, no one there suffers from SAD. I guess their bodies adjust to the fact that they don't see light during the winter!) Apparently in Iceland, failing at something is completely accepted and almost expected of you. That means you are stretching and trying new things. Failing is also acceptable in the US, but in general, there has to be a happy ending and the failure has to serve some purpose in helping you succeed down the road - this is not the case in Iceland allegedly.

Socrates once said, "The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living" but Weiner's point in this book seemed to be that sometimes we over-examine our life. Maybe the people who are happiest are those that are focusing on living and not constantly asking themselves, 'Am I Happy now?' My mom sent me an article a few years ago that made a similar point. I think there is some truth to this. There seems to be a delicate balance between the right amount of analysis and WAY too much. Of course, being a math major and an analytical thinker means I am predisposed to over thinking things a tish lot. But at least I am not alone in this - Americans seem to be good at this. But, being the work-in-progress that I am, it's a habit that I'll work on breaking over time...

Bottom line, Weiner came up with the following statement about happiness: 'Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.'

All pretty obvious things, but all very true. I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Unless you are super interested in happiness studies, it's probably not worth the read. If it's something you are interested in, feel free to borrow it from me!

1 comment:

Marlys said...

Wow, that was deep! Dad & I saw a prescreening of a documentary entitled "The Human Experience" on Sunday at the Fargo theater and it dealt with happiness or the true purpose of living. These two brothers who were raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, decided to search for the meaning of life and found that the most abject, hopeless people were the most content and happiest! They included the homeless on the streets of NY, severely handicapped children in an orphanage in Peru, and a leper colony in Africa. Those with the least appreciate life the most! It was deeply moving. Hope you can see it when it comes out in DVD format - may never hit the big screen! The best part was that after the showing, two of the young men in the video were standing at the back of the theater and then answered questions about their lives. Very touching.